MaltaToday | 13 April 2008 | Common sense – a luxury!

OPINION | Sunday, 13 April 2008

Common sense – a luxury!

Pamela Hansen

The MEPA chairman, Andrew Calleja, has finally hit the nail on the head by explaining why the authority never seems to be able to get it right.
“We don’t have the luxury to use common sense,” he told a small group of irate Maghtab residents who are going to have to live with pigs literally in their backyard, adding: “MEPA could not go against established policies”.
Now that is really interesting because what those statements spell out is that MEPA’s established policies are not based on common sense. No wonder the Prime Minister shied away from questions when he visited MEPA on Wednesday.
For example, if a rule says that certain things are not permissible in an inhabited area because they can be hazardous, common sense tells us that the number of residents affected is inconsequential, because what is hazardous to a 100 people is just as hazardous to a small group of 10 individuals.
But because MEPA’s established policy and the Criminal Code define an inhabited area as having at least a 100 people living there, MEPA cannot afford “the luxury” of sound practical judgment. And this is the institution that takes crucial decisions which affect all our lives and our environment in one way or another.
The same lack of sound thinking was in evidence at Cabinet level when the safety of a small number of inhabitants at Gharghur and elsewhere was jeopardised because of the 100 inhabitants rule. What is even more disturbing is that if common sense later demonstrates that an established policy is not working, MEPA cannot go against that policy.
Or so the chairman claims. Funny, I thought that was why we had amendments to rules and regulations; i.e., if a rule either becomes outdated, or is shown not to make sense, it gets changed to keep up with current thinking.
That is why belatedly, and after countless needless tragedies, common sense is prevailing vis-a-vis fireworks manufacture and storage.
Many of us had a distinct feeling that common sense is sadly lacking in many decisions taken here, but it has never been so eloquently and transparently put forward publicly by a prime decision taker.
It was no surprise that the Maghtab residents walked out of the MEPA boardroom in disgust at the chairman’s comments after the authority’s board approved the development of an 80-pig farm just 20 metres from their homes, despite its own policy that pig farms cannot be closer than 200 metres from an inhabited area, because of the magical 100 number of people required for an area to be recognised as inhabited.
The latter means an area lived in by any number of human beings, not just people whose numbers come to more than 100: otherwise, really anybody living in an area where less than a 100 people live are not habitués, i.e. they live in the air somewhere. Isn’t it about time that common sense prevails and ceases to be a luxury?

A mum PM
If MEPA considers common sense a luxury, God knows how it considers aesthetics. The lack of aesthetics, as well as common sense, in the decision taking at MEPA was again in evidence lately in the Lija Belvedere case, not to mention the way MEPA goes against what it publishes to convince the public that it cares about our heritage.
The Lija Belvedere featured prominently in a 2006 leaflet sent by MEPA to Lija residents promoting the importance of safeguarding our heritage. But it seems that amnesia took over when granting the permit for a development, which MEPA’s own Heritage Advisory Board warned will have a negative impact on the Belvedere: a grade one historical building.
Yet another subject the PM might have been quizzed on, on Wednesday. What I cannot understand is why the press was invited to the PM’s MEPA visit, since Dr Laurence Gonzi refused point blank to take any questions from the gathered media representatives.
This is very unusual. Is the press now going to be seen as just being invited to the PM outings to give public relations support to the government?
The reporters might have just as well stayed in their offices and copied the Department of Information press release.
Dr Gonzi made much, before and just after the election, of how he was going to bring change to MEPA. He did this because he took into account that he nearly did not make it back into the Auberge de Castille, since the electorate was sick and tired of the shenanigans at the planning authority.
So not surprisingly the press was expecting something a little more positive than the silent treatment. And please, those of you out there that are always bleating: “Well that is what the MLP did”, or “that is what the MLP would have done”. Instead of tackling the issue in hand, you must understand that it is the party in government that needs to be answerable to the public, and not the Opposition.
So what is happening in Lija? The local council is furious that a permit was granted for a four-storey building when MEPA’s own Heritage Advisory Board warned that the development will have a negative impact on the Belvedere, a grade one historical building.
The PM has been prevailed on by the Lija mayor, Mr Castaldi Paris, to revoke the decision. He told Malta Today that he would be urging “the Prime Minister to use his common sense to assess the permit issued a few days before the election.”
Let us hope the PM does not concur with the MEPA chairman on common sense.
It is argued that “The building contemplated by the permit will break the equilibrium and the construction will ruin the general lay out of Transfiguration Avenue.”
Well, we know how much MEPA worries about equilibrium and the general layout of our historic landscapes.
All one has to do is look across Sliema Creek to see the discord generated between the Tigne Point development and the bastions and buildings across the water in Valletta, to understand that even more than common sense being a luxury at MEPA, aesthetics are non existent.

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